girls on the rocks
RED RIVER GORGE, USA – 07:21 PM: Pure Imagination – Sasha DiGiulian becomes the first American woman in 9a/5.14d
Colorful plastic holds have made them strong: the young women climbers have learnt a lot in the hall. Now they’re not only making headlines at international competitions, but also conquering real rock faces of the highest grades. A new generation is entering the fray with girl power. Make a note of Sasha DiGiulian, Mélissa Le Nevé and Barbara Zangerl – they are names we would do well to remember.
Hooked on heights: “Moving up the climbing wall was exhilarating. I had to do it again!” It is now twelve years since Sasha DiGiulian’s passion was sparked. She was seven years old at the time, and a chance event, a kids party for her brother Charlie, two years her senior, brought the little girl into the “Sports Rock” indoor climbing centre in Alexandria near Washington D.C. Years later her mother Andrea told the local papers in Virginia of her complete surprise when she saw her daughter “scrambling up the walls like a monkey” while the boys, for whom the whole event had really been arranged, found it rather difficult. Up to then, Andrea DiGiulian had thought her daughter was destined to be a figure skater or a ballerina, but the girl found the practice sessions she was obliged to attend in these disciplines tedious. “Never had a sport felt so natural to me as climbing did,” remembers Sasha. So her mother started taking her to the climbing gym more and more often.
The 19-year-old American is currently a world-beater. Not only in competitions, but also outside on hard routes, for example in Spain. Last autumn she even climbed up to the very highest grade of difficulty, 9a.
Today the 19-year-old is occasionally referred to as “Pink Girl” by her fellow climbers, and it doesn’t bother her. “Pink is my favorite color,” she confesses, and on the day of the interview she just happens to be wearing a sports shirt, shoes and friendship bracelet of this color as she sits like a model, small, petite and pretty, on the wooden bench opposite, replying politely to all the questions. But don’t be fooled either by her elfin appearance or the shocking pink nail varnish that can be seen on several photos as her fingers grip hard boulders: Sasha is one of the new breed of very young, very strong women in the climbing scene, if not the strongest. In October last year the teenager raised the bar shortly before turning 19, completing her hardest routes to date. In her favorite region, Red River Gorge in Kentucky, she climbed the “Pure Imagination” route, thereby becoming the first American and only the third woman worldwide to climb a 9a. “The holds are sharp and very small, but despite the skin battle, the climb is amazingly fun and aesthetic,” she wrote ecstatically in an email the next day. “This was hands down the hardest climb I’ve ever been on.” Prior to that she had won gold (overall), silver (bouldering) and bronze (duel) at the World Championship in Arco and had successfully completed several routes of the highest difficulty, 8c+ and 8b+. No problem for her: “Climbing has helped me learn to set goals and to see them through,” she says, showing her grit.
Sasha is the best example of the new generation in sport climbing: young women who, unlike the previous generation, discovered their passion at a very early age with the aid of colorful holds in climbing gyms. “Today, climbers can develop their skills everywhere,” says Christoph Finkel, climbing coach of the German national team, “whereas in the past they were limited to the mountains.”
A climber like the famous 50-year-old Lynn Hill learned on real rocks, and that was perfectly normal. Nowadays young athletes are emerging who “have grown up in the gym”. According to Finkel, this is the greatest change in the sport at the moment, and it stems from an entirely new philosophy. Whereas only a few years ago indoor training was a last resort, plastic in gyms was regarded with disdain and large-scale outdoor projects were almost always the aim, whether in the Alps, on Everest or in Yosemite Park in the USA, the focus today is on climbing per se, on colorful holds that lead to higher and higher grades of difficulty. Whenever he wants to get them outside, Finkel often hears his strong, young women say, “Too cold, too damp, too far.”
They want to overcome creative problems in the gym, whether in bouldering or lead. The bolted
routes have long since ceased to emulate the rock faces nature has to offer and now constitute a world of their own. Because the risk of falls and injuries on well-secured and safety-tested artificial walls is much lower, very young girls can have fun trying things out at their leisure and quickly stretch their limits. In the past, 14 was the usual age for a beginner. “Now some ten- or twelve-year-olds are already climbing at what was the highest level 20 years ago,” says Finkel.
Success is a great motivator and the kids are developing a taste for competitive climbing at an ever earlier age: Sasha was nine when she went into her climbing gym one Saturday morning with her mother and was surprised to find a crowd of children and teenagers there. The “Youth Regional Championship” was being staged. Sasha hadn’t known anything about it, but was now determined to join in. After some deliberation she was allowed to take part in the category for the youngest children, those under eleven. The fact that she straight away came first, without any preparation, is something the young American is still proud of today.
From that point on she was a regular participant on the US competition circuit, first at local level, then regionally and nationally, ultimately progressing to international level. After graduating from high school in June 2011 she set aside a year for nothing but climbing. Her itinerary reads like that of an in-demand foreign minister. Take her three-month tour of Europe, for instance: Austria, Germany, France, Italy, Austria, a short trip to Utah (USA), Austria, Germany, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Belgium – and always on the agenda were competitions, world championships, hard routes, photo sessions.
In October she spent three whole days at home in Washington before continuing on through the USA and her biggest success of the year on the sandstone of Red River Gorge. This was followed by her first trip to Asia, with China as her destination at the end of the year.
Mélissa Le Nevé
The 22-year-old Frenchwoman is currently making a name for herself as a boulder specialist. A trip to
the South African rock “Rocklands” motivated her to tackle harder and harder problems and to overcome them.
A over the world, the Frenchwoman Mélissa Le Nevé has climbed, in competitions, on hard routes (8b+) and on challenging boulders. In the summer of last year she reached new peaks in the exotic setting of South Africa. “Black Shadow” (8a+) in Rocklands was the name of her greatest challenge: “It was the first time that I had gone all the way on such a hard boulder and that’s really motivated me to stretch my limits even further,” says the 22-year-old with the delicate features and brown curls.
Mel, as she calls herself, must also be counted among the new, strong girls. As a child she dreamed of sport climbing, but in the “flat region” of Bordeaux it appeared impossible. At the age of 15 she at last found a small climbing gym, only 7m high, and soon after that every minute of her spare time was spent climbing. Today Mel has three coaches and trains four hours a day. She has put her plan of going into journalism on ice for the time being. “That’s something I can do later.”
For now, she wants to concentrate solely on her sporting passion: “When I climb, I feel free,” she explains. She has been in the climbing business since 2006 and still has plenty to achieve.
Coach Christoph Finkel knows that it’s a tough business: “You must be very idealistic and there are no fortunes there to be earned.” Travelling round the world and the people one meets on the way are the payoff for the tremendous discipline required and the sacrifices one has to make for the sport. “When you’re young, you enjoy it,” he says.
But worldwide there are only a handful of women who can make a living from the sport. And they are not yet as well known as the men. Every recreational climbing enthusiast has at least heard of people like Adam Ondra, Chris Sharma or David Lama – but what about the ladies?
Hard multi-pitch routes are currently on the agenda for the 23-year-old Tyrolean. All she really needs for a perfect day is a sharply overhanging, 400-meter-high route like “Hotel Supramonte” on Sardinia.
The name Sasha DiGiulian is gradually becoming known among the climbing fraternity, and that of Barbara Zangerl means something to many people, in German-speaking countries at least, since in 2008 the Austrian became the first woman to climb the 8b-rated boulder “Pura Vida”. She was 19 at the time and was hailed as the shooting star of the climbing scene. “Then it was downgraded,” says the 23-year-old today with a trace of bitterness. “Pura Vida” in Switzerland’s Avers Valley is now rated only 8a+/b. Because a woman climbed it? Be that as it may, it is of no consequence to Barbara, because she already has 8c routes on her list. Eventually the down-graders will be unable to catch up because the ladies are advancing on all sides. Zangerl hails from Strengen, a small village on the Arlberg, and even though she grew up surrounded by mountains, her first ascent was in a climbing gym. The Tyrolean was 14 when her brother took her to the indoor bouldering centre in Flirsch.
She immediately became a regular visitor. It was the well-known top boulderer Bernd Zangerl, no
relation, who finally got her into the open air. Her first experience of real rock was like “Christmas and Easter all at once” for her.
In the past she was a boulder specialist, but now she aims to do more alpine climbing because “it offers me the greatest adventure”. Her passion for multi-pitch routes was aroused during a trip to Sardinia. In 2009 she stood before the 400m-high overhanging wall for the first time: “Hotel Supramonte”, eleven pitches (8b). “Incredible,” she thought to herself, “to try something like that!” A dream. But in 2009 it was clearly nothing more than wishful thinking. The route stuck in her mind and in spring of the following year she was ready. “Very difficult, no chance of conserving energy,” she thought as she weighed up the route from below. “Maybe this is a bit too ambitious,” she thought. But after only four attempts she had conquered the “Hotel” together with her climbing partner: “That was a perfect day, an unbelievable feeling,” she enthuses.
One of her current projects is called “Silbergeier” and is a very hard (8b+) multi-pitch route in the Rätikon that she was forced to abandon last year following a slipped disc. “I’m looking forward to the day I stand at the foot of the wall again.”
Barbara is also drawn to the rocks and boulders of the world: she has a job in a hospital as a medical technical assistant and works part-time which leaves her enough time for climbing projects.
Mélissa has similar plans, she wants to do more outdoor climbing whenever the competition season allows. It doesn’t matter if it’s boulders or routes, the main thing is that it should be rock. She is also becoming increasingly interested in multi-pitch routes because “the freedom you feel on them is so intense”.
That’s why she has moved from the flat country and has been living in Aix-en-Provence in southern France for some time, hard by several famous climbing rocks. Sasha, for her part, raves about the route “Cosi Fan Tutte” in Spain, not just because it’s another 8c+ for her collection, but also because the scenery is breathtaking. “It is located over a green-blue river and the rock is a beautiful light limestone. In order to get there you have to either hike over an hour up and down the valley, or take rafts and canyon down the river. I did both approaches and both were fun adventures.”
It seems that things are simply done the other way around: nowadays it starts with plastic holds, the artificial walls give climbers strength. But no matter what grades of difficulty Sasha, Mélissa and Barbara tackle in future, no matter what competitions they win, their path leads quite clearly to real rocks, real mountains.
And, in every sense, to new heights.
These girls plan to tackle challenging multi-pitch routes in future. That means long early-morning approaches and descents late in the evening that demand stamina. Unlike in a climbing garden the right outfit is key to the success of such tours. It must be light, for instance, and at the same time supremely functional, like the products in the Women terrex™ collection.